In a speech on the Day of Reconciliation in December 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a speech, parts of which one can fully agree with:
So long as we do not overcome the poverty, inequality and underdevelopment that affects this country’s majority, reconciliation will forever remain out of our reach.
We cannot build a society that enables the individual to better their life and realise their potential when resources meant for the benefit of the people are stolen by those who claim to be public servants.
However, one of the other core messages did not attract a lot of attention in the media and was largely not commented on. Perhaps it was because of the second wave of Covid-19 infections that had started to rise, or perhaps our senses have become dulled by these kind of messages:
We cannot move forward with the process of meaningful reconciliation if policies around economic transformation, affirmative action and land reform are resisted.
What President Ramaphosa is saying, is that reconciliation in South Africa is not possible without the ANC’s policy of racial transformation. This includes black (and only black) economic empowerment, affirmative action in terms of race and land reform in terms of race.
This policy is founded on the basis of demographic (racial) representivity: every single South African institution should in its employees, owners, players, procurement and membership reflect the racial composition of the South African population – 80% black (African), 9% coloured, 9% white and 2% Asian.
By this statement Ramaphosa promises 80% of the population 80% of society, resources and money – without them doing anything themselves. This is “correction” solely in terms of race. And in the same breath he states that racial minorities should be satisfied with the percentage of society, resources and money that their numbers represent: 9, 9 and 2.
Implicit in this ideology is the fact that if Africans are, say in ten years’ time, 90% of the population, the share of the minorities will be further cut. And if minorities do not accept his, there will be no reconciliation. This is, to say the least, a strange and illogical argument.
To give the President the benefit of doubt and interpretation, one can agree that if the gap between rich and poor, the appalling poverty and unemployment were not adequately addressed, South Africans would not be able to be properly reconciled.
It is, however, not about the laudable objectives, but how the ANC wants to address these problems. The methodology is to use the race formula of 80-9-9-2 (and in future 90-4-5-1) to commit large scale social and racial engineering. In practice this formula takes the form of quotas (something that is forbidden by our labour legislation) and the consequences are catastrophic.
Here are some perspectives why racial transformation is not good for the country or reconciliation.
Nobody wants to or can deny the reality of our racial demography. By far the majority of the population is African, and this is not going to change. Racial minorities today make up less than 20% of the population.
These minorities have in their numbers a large percentage of people who are economically prosperous, who own businesses, who practice professions or who are managers or farmers. They have large numbers of (mainly African) people in their employ. But the fact is that their numbers are declining in percentage terms as the African population grow, but also in absolute terms because they have fewer children and because some are emigrating.
Racial transformation targets this group in particular. The question is: Why would a majority push aside such a small minority if there would be, in the foreseeable future, not enough of that minority to manage the country and the economy? Fact is, there are simply too few members of minorities in the country to own, in five to ten years, a controlling share in the economy.
Most of the minority managers are older than 60 years and won’t be economically active in ten years’ time. Put differently: It is a matter of time before the (African) majority take their legitimate place in the economy. Why then muzzle racial minorities who create jobs and wealth, and produce goods, with racial legislation? How does this make logical sense? Why would a government set ownership levels so high that minorities could in effect not own a business? What does this do entrepreneurship? How does this aid reconciliation?
The truth is that the composition of our racial demography should rather compel us to use all skills and goodwill to create jobs and grow the economy – not to disadvantage and discourage minorities to co-operate in building our nation.
In the second instance, racial transformation is built upon the idea of the collective guilt of minorities (especially whites) in the creation and maintenance of apartheid. The thinking goes that as a collective, white South Africans were and are responsible for apartheid. They must therefore be disadvantaged as a group, so that the situation of the previous victim group (black South Africans) can be corrected.
Racial legislation does not use individual accountability and actions (such as with any other legislation), but collective responsibility – if you are white and part of the racial minorities, you have been advantaged and you share in the collective guilt.
The consequence is that racial legislation works with collective correction and/or advantage. If you are black (and especially African), then you have been disadvantaged by apartheid and you have a right to collective correction/advantage. It does not matter whether you have grown up in a middle class home or if you are already rich – your right to collective advantage remains.
The consequence of this collective approach is that a culture of entitlement has been established. “It is now our turn” (to be advantaged). The bigger problem is that the collective advantage and the culture of entitlement imply that I do not have to do anything actively to be advantaged. I do not have to work hard, be disciplined or develop any skills. I have a right to it, merely because I am part of the collective African group. One does not have to do a lot of research to come to the conclusion that such an attitude, based on such a system, is the end of individual accountability, own responsibility and – in many cases – hard work.
Thirdly, there are the consequences of (collective) racial transformation. Through these (even unintended) consequences it is abundantly clear that racial transformation is bad for the country and reconciliation.
The first aspect is the dysfunctionality of the system itself. Tenders in the public and private sectors are published with extremely strict racial conditions, even in sectors where skills and the knowledge to perform the work are already in short supply.
The “black” firm who wins the tender must therefore buy in the necessary knowledge and skills – which increases the cost three of four times, a cost that the tax payer should carry. There are, quite correctly, complaints about “fronting”, but the system is responsible for it.
The fact is that in such a system, corruption and nepotism are lurking in the shadows. The large scale corruption and nepotism with the Covid-19 PPE equipment shocked everyone, but this has been happening for years in the system of racial transformation – because knowledge, skills and experience are not deemed to be important in a system where collective advantage comes first.
Another direct consequence of the system is the wide spread incompetence in the civil service. When a government spokesperson laments a “lack of capacity” in service delivery, it is almost always attributable to affirmative action and people who had been appointed on the basis of their race and not their abilities.
Of course, there are many competent and capable black civil servants, but without racially based affirmative action we would not be sitting with a largely failing local government sector. We would have had a better functioning public health system to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. And we would have had better managed state owned enterprises.
This problem is aggravated by the above mentioned culture of entitlement – because I am black, I deserve to occupy this position, and therefore I don’t really need to do the work. But I want to earn more and more – and then I turn to fraud and corruption. Eventually, racially based affirmative action and black economic empowerment almost inevitably lead to corruption.
In the fourth place, it is clear from global experience that racial transformation is not a sustainable mechanism for empowerment. The only sustainable empowerment comes through education and training on the one hand, and economic growth on the other.
Former President Mandela had always made a strong case that education and training are the strongest instruments for empowerment (including economic empowerment). Unfortunately, the South African education system has largely failed. The SETA system is largely dysfunctional and fraught with corruption and mismanagement.
The ANC’s dualistic view of the economy (from socialist to market-driven) is largely responsible for the fact that the South African economy could not really grow in the past 25 years (with the exception of a few years under President Thabo Mbeki).
The economy is viewed as something static – the cake is only so big, and it must be redistributed, not grown bigger. This redistribution must happen in terms of racial transformation. This inevitably means taking away from non-African South Africans and giving to Africans. This is the essential zero sum game – If I want to win, you must lose. If the ANC government managed education and training better, many millions more Africans would have been empowered properly. And it wouldn’t have been necessary to alienate and disempower hardworking and well-meaning minorities through racial transformation.
I am convinced that history will show that racial transformation is the single biggest strategic blunder that the ANC has made in in its few decades in government. It has brought the country to an economical and administrative abyss. And it is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of reconciliation among ordinary South Africans.
Mister President, there is indeed a relationship between racial transformation and reconciliation. But it is the reverse of what you had said. We will not have meaningful reconciliation if the system of racial transformation remains in place.
I have often wished you strength and wisdom in your quest to destroy corruption. But if the big brothers of corruption, namely racial transformation and the culture of entitlement, are not changed, corruption and mismanagement will stay with us. And reconciliation will remain a pipe dream.
Theuns Eloff is an independent commentator. An Afrikaans version of this article first appeared on Netwerk24.com.